Interview: In Conversation with Stephanie Tom

by Art Editor, Carl Scharwath

Stephanie Tom is a contributor for Issue 7 and the winner of Minute Magazine’s Jenny Link Poetry Prize. Read her winning poem, “The Floor is Lava,” here

Q: Tell us a little about yourself first?
A: Hi there! I’m a Chinese-American poet and undergraduate student at Cornell University. I’ve been reading since I was four, writing since I was six, and in love with poetry since I was eight. Since then, my work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Sine Theta Magazine, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Porkbelly Press, among other places, and my debut chapbook, Travel Log at the End of the World, is forthcoming from Ghost City Press this September. When I’m not writing, I like to explore the great outdoors, dabble in the performing arts, and drink a copious amount of caffeine.

Q: When did you first begin to write poetry?
A: I got introduced to poetry in the second grade, when my parents bought me a children’s treasury of classic poetry as my seventh birthday gift. I loved to re-read them every day after school, and that same year, we had a poetry unit in class where we learned about different forms and genres of poetry which culminated in a grade-wide collaborative poetry anthology. At the time I was more interested in reading poetry than I was in writing it because I was set on making my mark as a fiction writer (which hasn’t happened yet). I started writing poetry again in fifth grade on a whim when I started to abandon my fiction endeavors. I haven’t stopped since.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: Everywhere. When I was younger, I would write directly observational poems about the weather, about school, about the books I was reading, or sometimes about the fantasy stories I abandoned mid-plot. As I got older, I started writing more confessional poetry, and more about experiences rather than tangible objects. I went through thematic phases — one year I wrote mostly space-themed poetry, and another it was mostly about philosophical and physical paradoxes. One year it was all about the pop culture I was consuming. I don’t usually try to stick to a theme when it comes to writing but sometimes it happens anyways.

Q: What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
A: One of my earliest memories concerning language was probably from when I was around four, and was on a road trip with my older cousins. We got into an argument about something undoubtedly childish, and one of them called me ‘dumb.’ Naturally, I retaliated by using the strongest word I knew — ‘stupid’ — and said exactly that, which lead to my aunt having to pull over because my cousin started crying uncontrollably. It wasn’t a proud moment, but looking back, that was the moment I realized that words were powerful and that I had to learn to wield them carefully in order to express my thoughts the way I wanted people to receive them.

Q: What is your writing process like?
A: I try to write a little every day, and by ‘write’ I don’t strictly mean poetry. Writing anything — essays, to-do-lists, journaling, whatever it may be — helps my brain get into the zone for potential poetry. I also don’t try to force ideas out — opening a blank document and staring at it doesn’t help me brainstorm better, so I just let it come naturally. Whenever I do sit down to write properly, though, I don’t stop once I start and just keep typing or scribbling until I feel like the bulk of the poem has been properly transferred onto the page.

Q: Who is your favorite poet?
A: Oh gosh, this is going to be a long and non-exclusive list. I’ve read and loved so many poets over the year, many of which have become role models and are sources of inspiration who still influence my writing today. Right off the top of my head: Chen Chen, Franny Choi, Talin Tahajian, Emily Dickinson, Emily Jungmin Yoon. Kristin Chang, Hannah Cohen, Paige Lewis, Kaveh Akbar, Leila Chatti, Olivia Gatwood, and so many more I know I’m forgetting.

Q: What would the perfect poem look like to you?
I don’t really think the perfect poem exists yet, because what I’m looking for in a poem always changes. Every time I read or write a poem, I’m looking for something specific to my mood that day. But I suppose no matter what, to me, perfect poem would be a happy one — it’d be the poem equivalent of drinking your favorite soup, slip-sliding down your throat as you read it and slowly filling you with warmth and a sense of love and wonder for the world. And no matter how many times you return to it, you’ll always feel comforted by its words.

Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t stress about writing every day and churning out so much content. There’s no need to rush to write a poem a day or get published in a new magazine every other month, and you don’t need to win awards to be a valid writer. There are definitely some people out there that are able to do all of this and they are incredible, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not equally as much of a poet. Your growth will happen and you’ll get better at this craft with time.

Q: What advice do you have for writers?
Be open-minded. Read as much as you can, in as many different mediums and styles as you can. Don’t force out words when you’re truly and 100% stuck with writer’s block. Leave the page or screen and return after a cup of tea or coffee. Breathe. Don’t stress about getting a perfect draft; do just aim to finish one draft at a time. Remember that writing is an art, and like every other form, takes time and practice to get to the level you want to be at. Write with a purpose, write for others, but always remember to write for yourself too.

Q: How will you celebrate with your 100 dollar winnings?
A: May is a season of many birthdays and celebrations in my family. Now that I’ve got my own money, I can finally use my winnings to get them the gifts they deserve while still keeping them a surprise!

Stephanie Tom is a Chinese-American poet and a student at Cornell University. Her poetry has appeared in Rising Phoenix Review, Hypertrophic Literary, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Luna Luna Magazine, among other places. In addition, she has previously been recognized by the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the International Torrance Legacy Creativity Awards, and the international Save the Earth Poetry Contest.

Carl Scharwath resides in Mount Dora, Florida. He has appeared globally with 100+ magazines selecting his poetry, short stories, essays or art photography. He won the National Poetry Contest award for Writers One Flight Up. His first poetry book is “Journey To Become Forgotten” (Kind of a Hurricane Press). Carl is a dedicated runner and 2nd-degree black belt.

One Reply to “Interview: In Conversation with Stephanie Tom”

  1. This was such a very interesting and very well done interview..
    I am so happy that I took the time to read it and it did highlight some very very important aspects about writing from this author..I highly respect her advice about a writing and it is very supportive and encouraging coming from someone who has such a diverse background in writing..
    Perhaps the best outlook on writing..
    Thank you for featuring her and posting this
    Best wishes and congratulations to her
    Lucille A LaRoche


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